Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Dumpling Place

The majority of the restaurants I've seen in China appear to be family owned small businesses. Certainly there are regional, national and international chains everywhere. But these have not completely taken over and it doesn't look like they will any time soon. Roughly 80% of the restaurants that I see in Wuhan are of the Mom and Pop variety. This is excluding the larger fancier places. In the smaller shacks it will often be just two people working there. This is usually but not always a husband and wife. I know of one place that is run by two sisters and another that is run by a mother and daughter. In places that serve dishes you’ll often see a whole family. There are no hard and fast rules here but you get the feeling that family and friends are hired first. It is not uncommon to see one or two of my students working in one of these restaurants near the school.

Among the restaurants outside the school gates there is a dumpling place. The people who own the dumpling place are friendly yet unobtrusive. They always seem happy to see me. They have also seen me studying Chinese and they wrongly believe that I know more than I do.

There are of course many different kinds of dumplings. The ones that seem the most ubiquitous are called jiaozi. This seeming ubiquity may simply be due to the fact that jiaozi are what I’m most familiar with and so are what I tend to notice more often.

Jiaozi have been one of my favorite things over the last three years. These are dough shells wrapped around some kind of stuffing. They can be prepared a number of different ways. Usually they are either steamed or fried. I generally prefer the steamed jiaozi. The fried ones tend to be greasy. In theory the steamed ones are healthier for you because of this but this isn't really why I prefer them. I think the steamed jiaozi taste better. You could also boil them.

There are several different kinds of stuffing that jiaozi can be made with. Anything, really can be used but I think that there are a few different kinds of stuffing that are traditional. In the dumpling place across from the school there are eight different kinds of stuffing. I've written these down two or three at a time over several visits.

牛肉绞 niu2 rou4 jiao3 (beef)
猪饺 zhu1 jiao3 (pork)
香菇肉绞 xiang1 gu1 rou4 jiao3 (mushroom and pork)
香菜肉绞 xiang1 cai4 rou4 jiao3 (coriander and pork)
芹菜肉绞 qin2 cai4 jiao3 (celery and pork)
白菜肉绞 bai2 cai4 rou4 jiao3 (Chinese cabbage and pork)
韭菜肉绞 jiu3 cai4 rou4 jiao3 (chives and pork)
韭菜鸡蛋绞 jiu3 cai4 ji1 dan4 jiao3 (chives and egg)

The numbers represent tones though to be honest I seldom get the tone right even when I know what it is. That’s fine in most situations such as ordering in the dumpling place. When I sit down and say “san liang bai cai,” I can murder the tones and while it may take them a second or two longer to process they will understand that I’m asking for three servings of Chinese cabbage and pork dumplings. However there is a definite context here which is unambiguous. In this restaurant there is a very limited number of things for which I could be asking for. While they do have other things on their menu such as fried rice or noodles, it is even more limited by the fact that I almost always order dumplings. They may laugh but they’ll understand.  

You may also notice that six of the above eight kinds of jiaozi are made with pork. Only one of the items listed on their menu uses the word for pork. The rest of them use rou which means meat but when used alone is generally understood as pork.

Most of the foreigners I know lack a sense of adventure when it comes to food. I don’t understand this. We’ll come halfway around the world in search of culture, adventure and new experiences and yet when we meet these things we’re only willing to explore a small percentage of them and we often grumble and complain that we can’t find the things which we had back home. At the same time the willingness to try something new rarely applies to food.

Most foreigners will order either pork or beef. Usually they will order beef if it is available. Over the last eighteen weeks I've worked my way through the majority of the items on this menu. Every few weeks I’ll try one that I haven’t had before. The experience is almost always the same. I always try the first one plain, without any sauce. Every time it has been something good. Every few days I’ll go back and order the same thing until I feel like moving on to something new. At the time of this writing the only item on this menu I have not tried is the eggs and chives. I imagine I’ll have that one soon.